Psycho Killer

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho

(This was written and published in slightly different form the week after Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was released in 1998. In the five years since then, I’ve actually become quite fond of the re-make. Although these points are still valid, the film’s eccentricities have grown on me.)

(This is also part of the Film Vituperatem Alfred Hitchcock Blog-a-thon.)

In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges envisions Don Quixote re-written by his title character: “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer,” Borges writes. Given Menard’s background and philosophies, he argues, the new Quixote is a markedly better work than Cervantes’. That they are the same in every textual way is irrelevant.

Fifty-odd years after Borges published his absurdist fiction — which both mocks the concept of re-makes and raises legitimate, interesting questions about the implications of authorship — Gus Van Sant makes the late Argentinian author something of a prophet with what’s being touted as a shot-for-shot re-cast of Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, with Van Sant having the balls to take the sole director’s credit in the opening titles.

While not exactly a Menardian undertaking — the need to use different actors, sets, props, and cinematography make a film equivalent of “verbally identical” impossible, and the choice of color over black-and-white makes the gulf even wider — Van Sant’s Psycho is largely his Quixote. He has taken care to reproduce whenever possible Hitch’s angles, shots, shooting schedule, and techniques. The script has been updated slightly to fit the 1990s (Menard would disapprove), and Bernard Herrmann’s score was tweaked by Danny Elfman, but it’s certainly the most literal use of the term “re-make” ever to hit the screen.

The movie is still the simple story of Marion Crane, a secretary who steals some cash from her employer one Friday afternoon and leaves town. Crane is, of course, the world’s worst embezzler. As she strikes out of Phoenix, she wears her guilt like makeup, attracting the suspicion of a cop and a car salesman. On a rainy night, she finds shelter at a back-road motel with 12 cabins, 12 vacancies, and Norman Bates, the only person in the world whose nervousness threatens to eclipse Marion’s. Norman has reason to be uptight, though. His domineering but oddly quiet mother is stashed in the house behind the motel.

The movie still kills off its most developed character within 50 minutes, cruelly spoiling her shower. It still celebrates the odd bond between a son and his mother. It’s pretty much the Psycho you remember.

Those who argue that such a by-the-storyboard re-make is a priori a waste of money and time (both the studio’s and the audience’s) fall back on conventional wisdom that seems to apply only to film among the arts. Regularly in recording studios and on theater and concert stages, acclaimed directors, actors, musicians, and conductors perform works that have been given their “definitive” treatments years, decades, or even centuries before. Nobody complains, because nuances, shades of meaning, and even wholly new interpretations can spring from strictly-adhered-to texts.

I approached the new Psycho hoping that Van Sant had found something new and different in the script and story. But he hasn’t, and it’s a shame. The execution is solid, but I so wanted something more, new, and different.

Anne Heche is Marion Crane and Vince Vaughn is Norman Bates in Van Sant’s version, and they try to take different angles on their characters. Yes, they’re somewhat fresh, but the self-aware performances only make the characters less interesting. More importantly, they relate to each other exactly as in Hitchcock’s original.

The movie’s first mistake is its conception of Marion. Heche plays her as a ditzy sprite who steals $400,000 seemingly on a lark, not even considering the consequences until she’s on the road. Janet Leigh’s oppressed, worn Marion anchored the first half of Hitchcock’s movie and gave the impression of a person burdened by a lot more than just some pilfered bills. In Psycho’s twisted idea of justice, we should be punished harshly for our sins, however menial: Janet Leigh had an unpleasant stay at the Bates Motel for a lifetime of bad choices, but Heche gets the knife for being stupid.

Vaughn’s turn is better than Heche’s but still problematic. Anthony Perkins played Norman with a stutter and awkward pauses, while Vaughn is all fidgets and munching, ripping through his lines. Through most of the movie, Vaughn’s performance is convincing, but he hits the wrong notes frequently enough — his grin is more giddy than evasive — to undermine the character, and remind us how well Perkins played the role. His confident, hulking mass (especially compared to the slight Heche) is also distracting; Norman requires somebody with a physical meekness.

The more seasoned actors offer some guidance, suggesting that re-doing Psycho well was not impossible. Julianne Moore brings a fierce determination to the role of Marion’s sister — bent on finding what happened to her sibling — while William H. Macy is spectacular in the small role of the private detective hired to discover the truth. Viggo Mortensen is often unintelligible as Marion’s boyfriend (shades of Fenster in The Usual Suspects), but at least he has some fun, taking his pretend union with Moore a bit too far for a grieving lover.

In some ways, though, discussing how Van Sant’s Psycho works or fails within Hitchcock’s structure is irrelevant. However faithful Mr. Drugstore Cowboy is to The Master’s direction, he takes many other liberties, usually for the worse. Van Sant treats the original script, storyboards, music, and architecture largely as sacred texts, but apparently felt no need to be true to any other part of the movie.

With just a few added sounds, in fact, the director subtracts from the original. Hearing Norman Bates unbuckle his belt and masturbate as he watches Marion Crane undress imposes a purely sexual reading that, in the original, was simply one of many reasonable interpretations.

A more fundamental change, of course, is the choice of color cinematography. Van Sant’s palette and photography are usually provocative and sometimes stunning, especially in the virtually incandescent bathroom, glowing with surgical whiteness. But the color Psycho dulls the sharp black-and-white compositions of the original, which were so integral to the story’s simple, extreme take on crime and punishment.

I can understand Van Sant’s decision, though, and maybe even agree with it. His choices in costume design, on the other hand, defy explanation. The entire cast wears some of the most hideous outfits ever seen, and dying would be a welcome escape from such gaudy clothes. Every costume change is an occasion for laughs, and that’s not a good thing for a movie that needs to build tension and anxiety to succeed.

And Van Sant cheats on the direction, too, tinkering in some very minor ways. “Shot-for-shot” is a lie.

The shower scene, for instance, delivers on the director’s promise to make it more explicit in violence and nudity; this might well be, to cite one example, the first mainstream movie with an anus shot. But the effect is minimal.

Some of Van Sant’s directorial changes actually enhance the picture. The climactic attack in which Norman is unwigged is newly choreographed and directed, making it less awkward and more exciting.

Whether they work or not, though, any change in Hitchcock’s shot selection destroys the idea behind the movie. If you’re not going to be 100-percent true to the original storyboards, what difference does it make if you’re 90-, 80-, or 70-percent faithful?

The two murder scenes of Psycho illustrate Van Sant’s willingness to add to Hitchcock’s vision with contemporary film techniques. Gus takes a page from Natural Born Killers by using quick cuts to unrelated footage in the slashing sequences. Marion’s shower scene flashes to ominous, rolling clouds, while the detective’s last moments offer a brief glimpse of an animal.

These moments show how Van Sant might have brought Psycho to a contemporary audience. Video, age, and reputation have already corrupted the original, after all. A 1960 audience had no idea that the person who appeared to be the main character would be killed off within an hour, had no warning for the brutality of that death, and probably had no clue that Mother had been dead for a decade and that her son was a cross-dresser, among the least of his faults.

That’s all part of the cultural consciousness now. Nobody goes in blind.

As a result, Van Sant’s Psycho is strikingly tame and quaint for a contemporary horror film. The changes are so minor — and generally so insignificant — that the casual viewer won’t notice them at all. The director doesn’t up the ante by truly bringing the story to the present, into a culture where violence, nudity, theft, transvestites, voyeurism, and unhealthy mother-son relationships can be found on dozens of television shows daily. If Van Sant wanted to truly replicate the experience of Psycho, he would have tried to upset us, not take us back to yesteryear.

By re-writing the story and acknowledging contemporary tolerances, expectations, film techniques, and our familiarity with Psycho, Van Sant could have done something special with the movie. By using, say, 70 percent of Hitchcock’s shots, dialogue, and plot, and turning up the intensity, he could have delivered a reverent re-interpretation while trying to make moviegoers squirm, even in an age of Scream.

Van Sant chose the easy way out. In many ways, he has made a movie in which the director is virtually blameless for anything that’s wrong. Don’t like the direction? You’re slandering a dead man. Don’t like the script? Not Van Sant’s fault. Don’t like the performances? The actors take the fall.

Make no mistake, the new Psycho still works. There’s also the fun of searching for the differences, of comparing the performances, of seeing Hitchcock’s vision in vibrant colors and garish outfits.

But if Van Sant can’t shoulder any blame, nor does he get any credit; Joseph Stefano’s script and Hitchcock’s direction are still the forces behind Psycho. As a result, Van Sant’s product is empty and pretty much pointless. It’s fundamentally Psycho, and it’s fundamentally sound.

But it’s also fundamentally a cop-out.

You’ve managed, in one article, to express everything that I hate about Van Sant’s useless remake. As Borges notes, “there is no intellectual excercise that is not ultimately useless.” You have illustrated why Van Sant’s is the most useless of all. Well done.

“But if Van Sant can’t shoulder any blame, nor does he get any credit;” Well said. In a way you credit the nobody director Richard Franklin (FX2, Link) with the balls that he could up and make him own piece of crap and at least call it his with Psycho II. Tell me have you seen it? I haven’t, but I wonder if I should think about it...

Psycho 2 has its moments; Perkins is recognizably the hero, for one, and his umpteenth slide into madness takes on a tinge of tragedy. And Meg Tilly is actually quite charming as Perkins’ almost love interest.

(A very belated reply.)

Yes, I have seen Psycho II, although it was in my teenage years. My only recollection of it is that Norman Bates isn’t the villain.

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